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January 26, 2010

Reem in Amman, Jordan: Best shawarma in the Middle East?


Long story short, from Michael Slackman's December 29, 2009 New York Times story: People from all over the city — and the world — go way out of their way to order shawarma from the tiny shop (above and below) on Amman's second circle, which sells more than 5,000 of the $1 sandwiches daily.

Here's the article.



Wrapped in a Pita, a Taste Jordanians Can't Resist

If you were to slow everything down, this is what you would see: scoop of sauce, pinch of onions, scoop of tomatoes, shovel in some meat, roll it all up in a pita.

But who has time to slow down? The crowds are always pressed up against the gate — in the searing heat of a Jordan summer day or the desert chill of a cold winter night — outside Reem, a hole-in-the wall takeout place with a reputation for the best beef and lamb shawarma sandwiches in the Middle East.

Shawarma is marinated meat grilled on an upright skewer, then shaved off in bits and rolled in a pita. It looks like a Greek gyro.

Behind the counter, Alaa Abdel Fattah flies through ingredients, rocking at the waist, with the focus and precision of an athlete. He assembles sandwiches in a blur. Four seconds each. “You get used to it,” he says, pausing for a moment to wipe sweat from his brow.

And then back at it because the crowds never let up.

This tiny shop, with its open-air storefront and two upright logs of rotating meat, sells more than 5,000 sandwiches a day, for about $1 apiece. The family that owns Reem now has four small restaurants in Amman, and copycat Reem shawarma stands have opened throughout the Middle East. It is a must-eat for legions of locals and visitors.

“It is like a pillar for me to eat here,” said Hamza al-Maini, 22, who said he traveled across Amman, past many other shawarma shops, to buy from Reem. “I have to come every week. I think it’s the best.”

Jordanians acknowledge that shawarma was originally imported, probably from Turkey, maybe from Greece, but it has clearly become a local food, having been adapted to native tastes and customs.

But who cares? Not the diners at Reem. They come here to eat, often in their cars, or standing outside, bent over a bit at the waist to avoid drips of grease and sauce that can leak out the bottom (if they have foolishly pulled away the paper wrapper).

It is a remarkable sight, known to anyone who has ever passed by the second circle (Amman is built on seven hills with seven traffic circles): crowds, all day, every day, outside this oversize kiosk.

“It’s the McDonald’s of the Arab world,” said Momtaz al-Shorafa, who said he had his friend, Muhammad Kiswani, drive him across town to get two sandwiches each.

Of course, there is no way to say for sure that Reem’s shawarma is the best in the Middle East. Even in Amman there are competitors and, well, shawarma often tastes like shawarma, no matter who is serving it.

“Try the shawarma here and the shawarma there; you wouldn’t taste a difference,” said Sameh Shokry, who works at a competitor, Shawarma Mawal.

That may be, but Reem has buzz.

It was founded in 1976 by Ahmed Ali Bani Hammad, who had worked as a cook in Lebanon, which is known for the best, freshest cuisine in the region. He returned home and opened his own shop. It is narrow, just wide enough for a cashier, two upright gas ovens to cook the meat, and an assembly of eight young men who cook, cut and serve nonstop.

Little has changed since he opened the place, except that now his sons, Sammer and Khalid, run the business. They drive around the city in a Porsche Cayenne and dress in expensive leather jackets.

“You make good money with shawarma?”

“Yes we do,” said Sammer Bani Hammad, the eldest son, laughing. He inherited the most important family responsibility when his father died five years ago.

He is the keeper of the secret recipe.

Mr. Hammad said the key to Reem’s success was the marinade used for the meat. He does not cook anymore, not as he did when he was a child working with his father, shaving off meat in front of a hot fire all day. But he does mix the marinade because no one else can know the ingredients. “The marinade has not changed; it is my father’s recipe,” he said.

The meat is marinated in a central kitchen, then pierced onto skewers. Thick layers of meat alternate with sections of fat to ensure a moist and greasy — and tasty — sandwich. Mr. Hammad would not even hint at the recipe, but the meat smells a bit of the Indian spice cardamom, or maybe cinnamon, and it tastes like salt, lots and lots of salt.

As it cooks, the outside of the meat blackens. That is when one of the cutters, like Mr. Fattah, gets to work, drawing a long sharp blade down the outside of the log, taking off just the cooked part, then letting it sit beneath the log of simmering fat and meat, cooking in the heat, collecting drips from above.

When the pile is large enough, Mr. Fattah plants his feet farther apart and begins rocking at the waist, flying through the ingredients. The sauce is tahini, made from sesame seeds.

Reem goes through more than 1,000 pounds of meat a day.

“Our customers are from across all classes,” Mr. Hammad said. “You can see a minister, a laborer, an actor, they are all here, they all wait the same.”

In that sense, you might look at Reem as a social equalizer in a very stratified society. But there is little in the name to suggest anything so profound.

“Reem,” he said, shaking his head, “is just a nice Arabic name. It’s not named after anyone. My father just liked it.”

January 26, 2010 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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